I was recently reminded of the importance of the parallel process in coaching during a session with a bright and experienced individual starting a new role. The coaching was to be around resourcing herself to deal with new challenges following a promotion.

20 minutes into the session, I was still unclear about what the specific challenges were. She had a strong grasp of her field, the support of her boss and an excellent team reporting to her. So, what was the problem? I was feeling a growing sense of confusion in me and I knew that this was an important sign.

Noticing the parallel process

I knew that if I was feeling confusion this might be an indication of what is going on for the coachee. And, potentially even for her wider team in their own work environment. This is what is meant by the parallel process in coaching. When things that happen during the session have parallels with what goes on outside in the client’s world.

What happens in the session could be a reflection of something that is happening in one or many places in the client’s life. Knowing this possibility, I offered this up to the client: 

“I am noticing a growing sense of confusion in me, and I am wondering what relevance that has to how you and your team might be feeling in your roles?”

After a long pause, she replied: “You know what, that is exactly how I feel!”.

We started to unpack what was going on. It turned out that her role was in fact not very well-defined and that the whole new set-up was created without proper attention to role overlap and responsibilities. There are many ways a coach could have intervened in that instance. So, there is no magic bullet or ‘right’ answer.  What is important is noticing how what is going on during the session might be a sign of what the client is experiencing in their world.

Knowing your base line as coach

And, really knowing yourself — your base line feelings and emotions —makes it easier to spot the parallel process. So, you as coach, have to be really attuned to yourself and your feelings, in order to effectively use what arises within you in a session. Are you feeling tired during a session because you just happen to be feeling a little more tired that day? Or, is this a parallel process at play?

The more aware you become of yourself and your inner world, the more skill you will develop with this.

“If you develop a deep knowledge of yourself, eliminate a majority of your blind spots, and have a good base  of patient experience, you will begin to know how much of the boredom or confusion is yours and how much is evoked by the patient.” — Irvin Yalom

Willingness to be ‘wrong’

Sometimes (or many times!), we will get it ‘wrong’ as coaches and that is okay. I happened to be right in that instance, but equally my confusion could have been triggered by something else. Something that may have had nothing at all to do with her situation. And, if it does not relate to the client, at least you clarified it. By noticing, checking and discarding it, you prevent a growing feeling from becoming a distraction. So, there is never really a ‘wrong’ intervention.

Making judgement calls on the relevance of what we notice is part of the fine line we walk as coaches. The key is being willing to offer-up what you are noticing, while not being attached to the result. Hold your hypotheses lightly! If you do so, it will serve the client.

Parallel process is our window

This recent experience reminded me about how much of what happens in a coaching session has relevance to how the coachee shows-up outside. It is our window into the client’s world and noticing the parallel process is a very important part of that.

It is a fertile realm — use it.


Harsha Perera Life CoachHarsha is a 1:1 coach and coach supervisor based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.